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Roll out the Barrel!



What ales you, man? (An Alnwickdote)


When Bob Caldwell told us “You must be one of the boys”, he didn't add that we'd be having our first beer of the day at the unearthly hour of 4.45 am. If you were lucky – unlucky if you're a normal mortal – you'd have two more before going for your greasy-spoon bacon-and-egg breakfast at 6.00am. Some days you'd be off again for two more “turns” and that could mean 6-8 more pints by knocking-off time at noon.

Set for life

We were “Time and Motion” boys, objects of great suspicion but essential mates of Watney's Beer-Delivery Dray-Men. Our work decided their pay or their bonuses to be correct. It was a holiday job but one that set in-place my career – not just having the occasional beer but what I do, or did. Then it was “Work Study”. It merged with “Organisation and Methods” and then shuttled across in to “Personnel Management”. Today it's all “Human Resources”.

It is a matter if great pride to me that whenever the Oxford-Cambridge University Boat Race on the Thames takes place, television pictures show the one and same Mortlake Brewery of my early indoctrination. Watneys offered me a job when I graduated. Reluctantly, most reluctantly I turned it down. I wouldn't be here today if I'd accepted it. I must confess that my Watney's stint did settle my post-graduate career choice – helping others to do their work, letting others do the work.


Gas disaster

Now I had had the occasional beer before Watney's. Many would say with good reason that Watney's Beers were chemical concoctions, like most beers of that era touted by celebrities likes Rowan Atkinson most famous as Mr Bean. Month Python of course immortalised Watney's Red Barrel in their travel agent sketch.

My first taste of beer was in the Fishing Boat Inn, Boulmer, as small boy (when it was a real pub and friendly). Salty old fishermen delighted in seeing us squirm with the nasty taste and pretend it was great. That early introduction did not put off venturing to more serious tippling around the age of 16. I looked older, never got asked my age. Confession time. We took to Double Diamond. It worked wonders with similar claims by all the keg-beer chemical concoctions that were all the rage in the 60s and 70s. The Bar Maid at the Plough, Alnwick, offered her Vaux Salmon Ale (now no more sadly) as either a blow job or a hand-job!

My Beer Barrel Bridport Co-op 1978
The gas used to blow beer in to your glass, as distinct from drawn by hand-pulled pumps, is of course Carbon Dioxide. Watneys delivered 28 or 14 pound canisters with the beer. If you see the beer barrels on the back of the Dennis delivery truck pictured, imagine them as aluminium casks; a dozen gas canisters alongside them, and me sitting on the kegs. Some crews wouldn't let the Time and Motion boys in the cab. One was Eddie Chamberlain the fastest driver in the fleet. One day in Hammersmith we hit a bump in the road. A 9 gallon Guinness keg jumped up to give me a bump on the head and the valve on one of the gas canisters spectacularly failed. It sent out an icy-cold steamy blast across my feet. Watney's Health and Safety rules meant I had to take a taxi immediately back to the brewery to be checked by the nurse. No concussion but a mild case of frost-bite...... in mid-Summer!


What your right arms for [Courage Beer TV Ad's Video 1 ; Video 2 : Video 3 : Video 4]

One morning, at a Free House, after 4 pints of Watney's Special Bitter at previous stops - Watney's staff never drank Red Barrel - I'd had enough and wanted to decline mine host's usual post-delivery offer “What you're having lads?” Needless to say my polite refusal brought ribbing from the dray-men. “Can't take your beer” and a few more phrases not allowed in these politically-correct times. I uttered a flimsy excuse “I'm just fed up of Watney's Special”. “No problem” said the Landlord “Try this!” He duly pulled me my first pint of Courage Directors. It was a revelation.

The end of Watneys Red Barrel

Red Barrel - “Roll out the barrel” was the song and advertising jingle for Watney's Red Barrel that competed with Double Diamond, Whitbread Tankard, etc. (See the beer Mats.) Now while I was there, Watney's decided to re-launch the brand, dropping the “Barrel” and calling it just Watney's Red. The laboratory and marketing boys had co-operated, done their research. They'd booked the TV slots and advertising hoardings. The first brews were brewed ready for delivery. Chairman Mao's face was salivating in anticipation. In celebration, they told the boys in the brewery – and me – to try it. Next morning they realised there was something amiss in the chemical concoction. Quite a few boys reported diarrhoea! Unfortunately it was too late to correct. So the brand new Watney's Red was in fact the same old Watney's Red Barrel. No-one noticed. The joys of keg beer.

Revelation Born-Again Beer

CAMRA by chance was formed the same year 1971 as my enlightenment and I joined it. We'd all drank proper draught ales before but too often it was a hit and miss affair as to how they tasted whereas gold old Double Diamond was consistent, consistently average. Here that glass of Courage Directors draught was the first excellent real beer I'd had and I've never looked back. Mind you today's Directors is not the same as the original but does at least retain much of its character. Here in Northumberland it's worth the trip to the Old Ship Inn Seahouses for a pint or two. (Best pub up here.)

Free Beer

Watneys gave us luncheon vouchers worth in those days 6 shillings or 30 pence. In the posh white-collar staff restaurant, we could trade one in, add one and six in cash, and get a good meal..... on white table cloths with delicate porcelain. As work study boys we could eat there or go downstairs in to the works canteen to eat on chipped formica tables with heavy Woolworth's everyday white plates. The food was the same “just cooked better for upstairs" said the boys. It was sold for.... one and six-pence. We ate with the boys, saving our vouchers to spend in the pubs. I spent my last voucher at the Spring Grove Kingston at Christmas, three months after I'd left Watneys.

Those vouchers opened up adventures. Now they were supposed to be for food but most pubs didn't care. One voucher was worth three pints of beer. So I sampled Young's Special, Fuller's London Pride, and fair few other draught ales. Bass was and is a special favourite, although it took me another 30 years and halfway across the world to see it served at its best.

Apart from Work Study for the Dray Men I carried out one more very demanding task. Few people know that Bar Staff actually walk far and carry much weight in the course of a day. Cellar-men even more so. I did something then that I still do today. I examine bar lay-outs. You would be surprised how much effort is wasted, as well as bar staff cajoling with each other when busy, simply because things are in the wrong place. Tills and most popular sales should be handiest to reach. not in far-off corners. We were actually paid to go and study certain pubs – my first string diagrams. We came up with model “work-station” layouts. Few pubs today have them – they should.

Beer in High Places and Faraway


In my small display you will see the Dennis trucks, built in the 1920s and 1930s that Watneys were still using in the 1970s. They were ideally-suited for small London streets, as indeed were the Shire Horse pulled drays – now used mainly for tourists and marketing. Although I have a Bass model here, it was encountering a Young's team that I recall best. They delivered the same time as us, down a cu-de-sac. Shire Horses aren't very good at reversing. It was fun. Beer deliveries are called turnarounds – that was the longest I ever recorded.

Apart from the pride of being associated with Mortlake Brewery, that job took me in to all kind of places including the House of Commons and 10 Downing Street. At the time I'd never thought that Prime Minister Ted Health liked his Red Barrel. I suppose he'd thrown out Harold Wilson's Old Peculier or Yorkshire brew. During the era of "In Place of Strife" Harold was famous for beer and sandwiches at No 10 to placate the trade unions.

You will also see in my barrel the bar mats advertising crisps. Those were the days when often the only food you got in a pub was a packet of crisps. Some great old brands there.

From London I moved down to Exeter Devon and then Dorchester, Dorset where excellent draught beers were and are brewed. It's a shame that Devenish and Eldridge Pope have gone. You can see the Thomas Hardy Ale bottle on the left. Hall and Woodhouse brewer of Badger ales is still going and I thoroughly enjoyed a pint (or two) last year when coming across their pub in Twickenham.

I then left these hallowed shores. Occasionally I had emergency rations of English beer sent out to me on St Helena Island, including Directors or “Cock-Fowl Beer”. I will never understand how South African breweries succeeded – Castle and Lion were/are never more than bland lagers. I told them at the Rand Show. (Beer mug top right) Mostly when abroad though I've had to settle for chemical concoctions. Mind you they are served with a little more style in Cambodia and South East Asia, aren't they? (See picture below to end this blog - incidentally Carlsberg, Heineken etc refuse to help these ladies.)

Most Unusual Watney's Legacy

As stated above if it was not for Watneys, I may not have taken my career-path. There is one other very important life-skill I learned that stood me in good stead decades later when working with Dorset Social Services and the disability sector in Cambodia. My blog tells those stories.

Memorabilia from the era of Watneys and Courage. Who remembers the Ushers sign outside pubs or the plaques and posters inside? I do.

One beer-delivery was to the psychiatric facility in Epsom, to the staff social club located in the Women's wing. It was one of the largest residential institutions in the country. The “Ticket-Man” Vic Johnson, the Dray Man responsible for the paper-work warned me. “Stay close to us!” The beer kegs were placed on a trolley and wheeled down long corridors past the female patients. Many were curious about their visitors and wanted to approach but were grabbed and held back by the attendants, mainly burly men, much to their chagrin with tears and wriggling to be free. One escaped and grabbed Vic. Vic was a typical cockney working-class boy, down-to-earth, quick-witted. Instead of fighting the woman off, he gave her a big hug and a kiss “There you are darling!” and off she went very happy. Quite frankly he showed more sense and good practice than the staff. One more young lady broke from her keeper, throwing herself at my feet. That was and remains the only time in my life a lady has done that, just one fateful attraction.

The End of Watneys

My time at Watneys was historic in more ways than one. One of our competitors was Ben Truman

Watneys itself was formed from multiple brewery mergers – Watney, Combe and Reid, and Mann, Crossman and Paulin etc. Watneys decided to take over Trumans and launched a bid for it. Unfortunately Grand Metropolitan Hotels wanted it too. As they competed share-prices shot up until they got the point where Grand Metropolitan decided that it made sense to take over both Ben Truman and Watneys. So they did and Watneys joined many other brews including Courage in the same stable.

Mortlake Brewery survived producing chemical concoctions until 2015. Full history here by Martyn Cornell.

Fortunately CAMRA succeeded far beyond all expectations. British beer was saved. I still find Directors my favourite. Not many kegs can match it. As a Northerner one of the admissions I have made is that beer on the whole is better in the South, with or without a frothy head. My older family members used to call it “Pop” and so it was, even much-vaunted Newcastle Brown. So it was but I am pleased to say that today things are much better and we now have some great local brews. “Toon Broon” by Firebrick is actually a much improved draught version of the Blue Star favourite.



More Reading and Images

After posting this blog I was pleased to come across others on the same theme. Many have similar thoughts as mine, a mix of appreciation, nostalgia and good-humoured banter. There is even a resurrection of Watneys?  I enjoyed most this blog from Retrowow with some of the most apt comments including from John Palmer who was one of the "Lab Boys" I refer to.  I can vouch for his statements - very few of us knew the secret of Watney's Export Lager that was indeed excellent. Please see also "Cloning Watney's Red.

I can't claim to have been a great Watney's beer-drinker. I wasn't persuaded by working there. Among many easily forgettable pubs, I do recall the Iron Bridge at Isleworth, the local of our housemates and the Bull at East Sheen.  There's a good walk described here that covers my commute from home in Palewell Park to the Mortlake Brewery. There are some great photographs of it. It also mentions one Young's pub nearby, The Jolly Gardeners but not our favourite at the time the Hare and Hounds.

The walk described here is very much the same nostalgic return I had not long ago, retracing steps around Richmond Park, East Sheen, Mortlake and beyond. It includes Syon House - London home of our neighbour, the Duke of Northumberland, and Kew Gardnens that has done much to help St Helena's endemic plants.






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